Development as performing otherness: using Vygotsky and Stanislavski to create real discussions

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Development as performing otherness: using Vygotsky and Stanislavski to create real discussions // Мышление и речь: подходы, проблемы, решения: Материалы XV Международных чтений памяти Л.С. Выготского. - 2014. - Т2.

Development as performing otherness: using Vygotsky and Stanislavski to create real discussions 12

Atsushi Tajima Tokyo University of Foreign Studies Japan, Tokyo

This study employed the notion of podtekst (or subtext), which was developed by Russian performer and director Stanislavski, and which may have influenced Vygotsky’s semiotics, as a means of improving university students’ learning of scientific (academic) concepts.

Vygotsky(1987) viewed development as a process of gaining skills for participation in interactions with peopleliving in unfamiliar contexts. Communicating with those who share one’s own life context (e.g., family members, acquaintances, friends, etc.) does not greatly challenge speakers’ cognitive capacityforcontrolling complex speech, as people usually do not need to verbalize contextual information,as they can reasonably expect to share context with one another. In this study, I identify such people as «peers». Vygotskyreferred to this sort of situation as«predicativity, » and he indicated that almost all speech in everyday life (so–called «everyday concepts») is produced and learned through such predicated oral communications between and among peers in childhood.

«First, no one would answer the question, «Do you want a glass of tea?», with the fully expanded phrase: «No, I do not want a glass of tea.» Again, no one would answer the question, «Has your brother read this book?», by saying «Yes, my brother read that book.» In both case, the answer would be purely predicative. In the first case the answer might be «No»; in the second «Yes» or «He read it». (Vygotsky, 1987, p.267)

However, by school age, children start to learn so–called «scientific (academic) concepts» in school–based education that is oriented toward literal communication. Essentially, the aim of literacy is to communicate with those who live in different places and times;in this sort of communication, one cannot expect highly shared contexts as a basis for understandingeach person’s intentions (Ong, 1982). I refer to such people as «others». Communication with others demands that speakers engage in far more complex verbal control than does communication with peers, as speakers must verbalize every moment of their own experience, whereas these can be predicated (abbreviated) in interactions with peers.

Vygotsky emphasized the developmental role of scientific concepts in his theory, suggesting that mental functions, that is, «consciousness awareness and the voluntary control of inner speech,» emerge fromthe internalization of such concepts (Vygotsky, 1987). These functions are defined as capacities that enable one to reflect on transforming the meaning of words by connecting them with other words that seem to be understood by dialogic partners. Once developed, these functions enablespeakers to appropriately express their own intentions to others who hold different points of views. Thus, in Vygotsky’s theory,«development» can be interpreted as the capacity of speakers to communicate beyond the boundaries of contexts.

«Underdevelopment of logical thinking consists of the child not being conscious of his own process of thinking. ... If the thought of the child did not meet with the thought of others, child would never become conscious of himself.» (Vygotsky, 1998, p.72)

However, there is contradiction embedded in education, namely that almost all students must learn these scientific concepts in the classroom, where actual others do not exist; hence, students have few opportunities to utilize these literal powers that can connect disputatious ideas of others in the context of real discussions. As a result, many students may lose their motivation to connect abstract academic concepts with concrete social problems (Tajima, 2013). Instead, they tend to memorize the superficial, informative aspects of concepts so as to discuss with their peers and to pass examinations; in other words, they remain predicated use of their learned concepts valid for interactions only in conventional classroom contexts.Vygotsky (1997) called this paradox as «verbalism».

Vygotsky himself did not describe concrete pedagogical methodologies for overcoming students’ verbalism. However, I propose that a solution may lie in Stanislavski’s notion of podtekst, whichVygotsky himself cited in his workswould be effective in overcoming this problem. Stanislavski developed methodologies to introduce dramatic characters to actors as «others» who are yet peers in the theater. Stanislavski (1988) insisted that much implicit information lies behind the explicit texts that emerge from each speaker’s personality in real communications;he called such implied information «podtekst» (or subtext). He developed «Stanislavski Systems,» which were designed to encourage actors to probethe podtekst of speech that underlay drama from the perspectives of each character’s personality (innercontexts).Vygotsky mentioned the concept of podtekst in chapter 7 of «Thinking and Speech» in explaining the relationship between the personal contexts of each speaker and explicit speech. Thus, in Vygotsky’s terms, podtekst can be taken to mean predicated information.

In Stanislavskii’s system in particular, we find an attempt to recreate the subtext of each line in a drama, to reveal the thought and desire that lies behind each expression. Consider the following example: Chatskii says to Sophia: «Blessed is the one who believes, for believing warms the heart.» Stanislavskii reveals the subtext of this phrase as the thought: «Let’s stop this conversation» ...The living phrase, spoken by the living person, always has its subtext. There is always a thought hidden behind it. (Vygotsky, 1987, p.281)

Stanislavski’s primary motivation in introducing such systems seemed to be to improve novice actors’ readings and performances (Toporkov, 2001). If actors were to perform based only on the information contained in the superficial texts of dramas, communication among characters would lose any air of reality because all actors would know precisely the same information about the drama they are performing. In contrast, if actors’ aim is cultivate the podtekst of each speech and create original personalities for each of the characters from the perspectives of their own life contexts, they must strive to understand the unspoken intentions behind the explicit texts heard on the stage. In other words, actors aim to become «virtual» others who are motivated by the unknown contexts of their partners’ speech, although they are essentially peers behind the scenes. Stanislavski named such a realization of communication among actors on stages «infection», and he argued that actors achieved something new through performances among these cultivated personalities (Benedetti, 1982; Toporkov, 2001). Vygotsky (1987) valued Stanislavski’s thought as an example of building realistic transactions on stage by organizing the inner contexts that were hidden behind the explicit lines of each speaker.

I employed these concepts fromVygotsky and Stanislavski to address university students’ verbalism in their learning of scientific concepts. I assumed that most of them had little motivation to seek the podtekst of these concepts behind understandings held by stakeholders living in various contexts of real social practices. To improve this situation, since 2013, I have designed educational settings in which students act as both presenters and audience members in discussions regarding the basic textbooks used in educational psychology.

In these lectures, students were instructed to represent characters of stakeholders from different contexts and to use the aforementioned concepts to confront educational problems, that is, to explore the podtekst reflected in the understandings of concerned parties in light of each identified character’s context. In other words, they were introduced to a theatrical stage on which to enact «otherness» with one another in the classroom, in order to verbalize abbreviated (predicated) in designated podtekst regarding abstract scientific concepts, accumulated inside each character’s concrete life context. According to the data analysis, participants seemed to be more realistic in their use of concepts when they came to read understand the podtekst of the stakeholders they portrayed, interpreting the abstract meanings of concepts by identifying their connections with concrete information as it might be understood by people in the designated roles. Thus, it can be said that they were able to develop their inner speech (consciousness) about these concepts by performing real discussions with virtual others, reaching beyond verbalism.

Vygotsky (1978) suggested that internalizing the «play» that allows children to take various social roles and perform quasi–social practices can be a trigger for the development of autonomous inner speech (consciousness) during childhood. Educational settings developed and analyzed in this study that allowed students to perform as «others» in interpreting scientific concepts may be regarded as such «play» and may promote verbal consciousness in adolescence.


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